SAT vs. ACT: Which one should you take?

So you’re getting ready to face one of the biggest challenges in high school–college entrance exams, the SAT and the ACT. Except, you know there are 2 choices. Well, which one are you supposed to take?

Depending on where you’re from, you might have heard that the SAT to be the test you’re “supposed” to take, or you might have heard that the ACT is the one.

Truth is, almost all colleges in the US today accept scores from either test. It is true that the SAT is the original test, but the SAT’s monopoly over the college exam industry has been over for several decades. In fact, as of 2009, slightly more students take the ACT than the SAT. (50.5% to 49.5%)

That means the decision on which test to take relies more on your unique skills. You should pick the test that’s right for you. You can figure out which one is better for you by looking at the characteristics of the two tests.

Basics of SAT vs. ACT

 Overall Structure
  • Reading
  • Writing (Grammar)
  • Math
  • Optional Essay
  • English (Grammar)
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Optional Essay
 Length 3 hours & 50 minutes 3 hrs & 35 minutes
 Scoring System Full Score: 1600

Sum of two scores in “Reading & Writing” and “Math”, each scored out of 800

Full Score: 36

Averaged from individual section scores in English, Math, Reading, and Science, each scored out of 36.

Both tests are essentially the same at the core. Colleges want to see two things the most: your Reading ability and Math ability, so both the SAT and ACT have a Reading portion and a Math portion. They also both have a Grammar portion and an Essay. The ACT is different in that it also has a separate Science section, whereas the SAT has Science questions blended into the other three sections.


Meaningful differences between the SAT & ACT

But what are the differences that really matter when it comes to choosing the right test for you? There are many things to consider, but you can think about this on a few different levels.

General Differences Based on your reasoning ability

Favors deep, creative thinkers

Based on content and speed

Favors quick, straightforward thinkers

Reading Has more difficult passages, including 19th century literature, historical documents and scientific research summaries. Favors those who read higher level material.

Time: 13 minutes to read an 80 line passage and answer 10-11 questions.

Has easier passages at the 9th grade reading level, but you need to be able to read much more quickly.

Time: 8 minutes 45 seconds to read an 80 line passage and answer 10 questions.

Math Problems are more puzzle-like

Has more real-world application problems and conceptual questions.

Has a no-calculator math section. Favors those who are good at doing math by hand.

Problems are more straightforward

More advanced level concepts (ex. matrices, trig identities, logarithms)

More time pressure. Favors those who know how to use time-saving math tricks.

 Writing/English Slightly more emphasis on “rhetoric” (relevance of information, word choice, sentence order) Passages are easier. More emphasis on grammar.
Science No Science section.

However, you will see difficult scientific passages in the reading section.

Has a Science section.

Tests your ability to interpret data from tables and charts.

No background knowledge is necessary, but does help.

Essay (Optional) Similar to literature papers at school

Analysis of an author’s writing

Similar to persuasive essays

You must argue and support your opinion.


1. Do you have a Math brain or a Verbal brain?

If are fond of reading and writing–words just come easily to you–I recommend the SAT. The Reading passages on the SAT are now more difficult than before, and students will be faced with more historical documents (which means old-style English, which is hard for many to crack). Even when it comes to math, the SAT now features much more wordy problems, so it takes even more verbal ability. You have to interpret a whole situation before you get to the soft math hidden in the shell.

If you have more of a math brain–numbers and logic just make sense to you–I recommend the ACT. (If you preferred looking at the infographics than reading the insights in the written parts of this post, that may be an indication!) The ACT does test you on harder topics on the math section, going further into Trigonometry than the SAT does. Furthermore, there is an entire section dedicated to Science, which is easier if you have a good general foundation in science subjects. In the reading section, the given passages are generally at a 9th grade reading level, easier than those on the SAT. On the other hand, you trade the difficulty on the reading passages for an extremely demanding time limit. Which brings us to…

2. Are you a quick and straightforward thinker, or a slow and deep thinker?

On the SAT, the Math section covers more wordy problems and involve more conceptual questions. The Reading section has more difficult passages. The ACT, on the other hand, covers slightly easier math problems and slightly easier passages, but gives you much less time to complete them. (SAT: 13 minutes per passage. ACT: 8 minutes and 45 seconds!)

In general, I can say that the SAT is harder than the SAT, but there are fewer problems to solve. Each problem counts for more, whereas the ACT gives you a lot of problems to solve in a shorter amount of time. This means that if you’re a student who can solve problems very quickly, you might be better off on the ACT than on the SAT. On the other hand, if you are a student who is able to sit with a complicated problem and figure it out eventually in a puzzle-like way, (and maybe you even enjoy it) then you might be meant for the SAT.

In conclusion…

There are no such things as hard and fast rules in this arena. It all depends on you. For example, you might be a student who is better at math, but you read very slowly. What are you to do? The best way to tell is the same as it always has been: to try it out! Try taking a full-length SAT and a full-length ACT if you can (try to find time after the school year winds down).

If you have 2 hours free, then come by Sky High Tutoring and try our SAT/ACT Decision Test, which is a combination of parts cut out of the SAT and ACT, which allows us to advise you on which test you will probably do better on. The test is completely free!

Sign up for your free SAT/ACT Decision Test below: